October 20, 1997
Volume 50, No. 9
For many of us, it's difficult to recognize community involvement as a path of intellectual discovery. More typically, we view community participation and service as doing good with and for our neighbors. These acts stretch the skin of our individualities toward the community as we join others in various projects for increasing the prosperity of all.
This is a fine perspective. But it undervalues how community-based work sharpens our thinking as well as our "doing." If our eyes and minds are open, we realize that community involvement is always engaging the next intellectual questions. It reaches for the next breakthroughs in action and ideas.
Thinking about community participation expansively also challenges the phrase "community service"; I prefer the term "community partnership" because it emphasizes the mutual and long-term nature of the best kinds of service. In fact, many of us at Emory are involved in community partnerships, some locally and some beyond Atlanta. Focusing on our local efforts, Emory faculty from diverse departments are gathering and analyzing data and developing relevant uses of theory to address problems and needs. Students taking classes with these faculty members also become engaged with this work.
The results of this are the kinds of integrative and synthetic thinking we all long to strengthen. Students are honing their skills in critiquing, verifying and deepening their understanding of theory. They are struggling, along with faculty and community partners, with the ethical implications of applied theory and turning to other Emory faculty and the Ethics Center for resources, education and counsel. The results are very exciting.
Specifically, in the college many of these efforts are related to the Theory Practice Learning Initiative housed in the College's Center for Teaching and Curriculum. A pedagogy designed to integrate classroom theory with the practices of theory, TPL teaching techniques are used in a variety of forms to link ideas with actions.
Community partnerships are an ideal location for TPL. Through TPL-based community partnerships, students report that their understanding and retention of class materials increased. They feel confident joining their teachers in analyzing actual situations and suggesting useful responses. Faculty report their teaching is re-energized because of additional student interest, and their research is improved by community commitment and cooperation.
In chemistry, Preetha Ram and her students put theory into practice within the framework of a community project addressing water pollution. They learn chemical methods of analysis and lab techniques while serving and learning more about their communities and local environments. Motivation for learning is increased, and the student-designed research projects are excellent. Ram's own research also has been enriched. Her model will serve as a guide for next semester's Violence Studies Internship course in which students will design and implement research projects with community partners and make a public presentation of their findings.
Those connections with the community already are being formed in the introductory course of the Violence Studies minor taught by Bob Agnew (sociology) and Cathy Caruth (comparative literature). This course helps students begin linking ideas to community participation through an optional assignment of working with a broad range of local organizations to address issues of violence. In part, Agnew and Caruth have chosen organizations with which they are already familiar through their own research and service.
These existent relations have made it easier to design appropriately rigorous and relevant placements for the students. Other placements were gleaned from a database developed in the TPL office. The course's approach is interdisciplinary; Agnew and Caruth believe concrete experiences help foreground different disciplines' theoretical and methodological approaches to violence.
There are many other examples, including courses in anthropology, biology, religion, women's studies, philosophy, African-American studies, music, theater, creative writing and English, interdisciplinary studies and many more in our professional schools with which I am less familiar. The variety of strategies is wide, as many of our colleagues integrate teaching, research and service through partnerships in Atlanta.
One notable area is the increased involvement of Emory students with faculty in local schools. Ram's chemistry class works with K-12 students from Atlanta public schools to help them perform scaled-down versions of the water-quality tests. They keep in touch through the Internet and videoconferencing. The dance program and the German and education departments also are working with schoolchildren (often on smaller scales than the nationally recognized Elementary Science Education program covered in more detail in this issue).
Of course, TPL is not the only effective strategy for linking research, teaching and community partnerships. But it provides one resource for effectively addressing the related challenges posed to us by the report from the Commission on Teaching. TPL is a demonstrably useful approach because it assumes linkages; through TPL, we work with our community partners and try to make sense of concrete and often worrisome phenomena such as the effects of violence on children, unhealthy drinking water, economic trajectories of neighborhoods and the practical implications of new immigration laws. With our neighbors, we are trying to advance the intellectual questions that can positively shape the pragmatic breakthroughs needed for our future.
This work, of course, is the heritage of citizen-scholars-that ancient and worthy tradition of higher education in the United States. At Emory, we nurture that heritage in other communities for the sake of learning and teaching and acting ethically in service of our beautiful and wounded world.
Bobbi Pattterson is coordinator of the Theory Practice Learning initiative in the Department of Religion.
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